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Skipjacks for the 21st Century

Photograph: Captain Art Daniels on the deck of the City of Crisfield at home in the village of Wenona, on Deal Island, Maryland.


Uncertain Future
for Skipjacks?

The Rise and Fall of
the "Two-Sail Bateau"

A Second Season
for Skipjacks

Saving (Working) Skipjacks

Knauss Fellows for 2003

In Memoriam


This Issue's Videos:

Oystermen on the upper Chesapeake would work the entire 20th century with the same fishing gear used in the 19th century. The "Maryland solution" to overfishing: save oysters by making oystermen work hard.

sketch of an oyster dredge
Oyster Dredge
Saving Oysters ... and Oystermen.  Captain Art Dainiels on the deck of the City of Crisfield at home near Wenona, Deal Island, MD - by Skip Brown
The Paradox of the Commons

By Michael W. Fincham

Rooted in Maryland's rich maritime tradition, the 19th century working sailboats we now call skipjacks may face extinction in the 21st century. Can we restore the great oyster reefs of the Chesapeake as well as the historic fishing boats that helped tear them down?

The 20th century was ending well for the oldest oysterman on the Chesapeake, until Art Daniels of Deal Island hauled up something in his dredge he had never seen before in all his years as a skipjack captain.

It is November of 1999, the start of the last season of the century, and Daniels, small and wiry and nearly 80 years old now, is hauling up some good-looking oysters as he works the lower reaches of the Choptank River with his aging, patched-up sailboat, the City of Crisfield. Fifty or sixty bushels a day would have been bad news 52 years ago when he started in the business. He brought in 207 bushels his first day out as captain of a long-ago sloop named the Molly Leonard. But now down at the dead end of the century, 50 bushels a day is good news for Art Daniels. That many bushels means he can still get a crew together and go out dredging under sail.

Captain Daniels spins the wheel and his City of Crisfield, orange and glowing in the early light, slides into an eastward tack along the north shore of the lower Choptank River. The boom with its flapping mainsail swings by his head and then he feels the deck sloping to starboard and the main and jib beginning to fill.

Ahead of him, Daniels can see two other skipjacks out on the river under sail. The mild November weather and the hope of 50 bushels is bringing out Dicky Webster with the Caleb Jones and Walt Benton with the Somerset, both boats up from Deal Island. With three skipjacks sailing the river during this last Indian Summer of the century, oystering on the Choptank looks something like oystering all around the Chesapeake during the early decades of the century. From farms and houses and lawns along the shore, from cars on the Route 50 bridge at Cambridge, anyone could glance out and catch a glimpse of the Bay's disappearing past. Five miles down river, there they are: white and sleek and graceful, gliding slowly out of time, drawing the eye and dominating the riverview with their slashing bowsprits, towering masts and huge, sun-catching sails.

The Art of Oystering

But why are watermen still dredging oysters from sailboats?

It's been called "the Maryland solution." To save its oyster grounds from overfishing, the state of Maryland over a century ago came up with an usual conservation technique. Dredging would only be legal from a moving sailboat. And tonging would only be legal from a stationary workboat. For the next hundred years, there would be no legal dredging from power boats except for a few restricted areas opened up in the late 1990s. Innovations in fishing gear would be few: power winders for all the skipjacks, hydraulic "patent" rigs for some tongers, and for some watermen scuba gear for diving on oyster bars. For the most part, however, oystermen on the upper Chesapeake would work the entire 20th century with the same fishing gear used in the 19th century. The "Maryland solution" to overfishing: save oysters by making oystermen work hard.

Dredging under sail took more than hard work. Dredging well enough to make money also took a lot of art - and a little science. Standing in the stern, steering the City of Crisfield along the Choptank, Art Daniels dips his head, peers down the cabin hatchway and eyeballs the black and red screen of an electronic depth finder. Daniels long ago learned to find underwater oyster bars by reading winds and tides and key landmarks along the shore, but like most skipjack captains he has learned to find them more quickly with sonar scanning technology. The river channel is about 30 feet deep along here, and Daniels - reading the winds, the flooding tide and his sonar screen - is trying to sail right along its shallow edge. "Most of the hills follow the channel," he says. "If we can get the depth of the water, we can tell where the hills are. We can be running about 20 feet and then all of a sudden it jumps up to 12 feet, and we know we're on a hill then."

At midship, the men in his culling crew are still down on their knees, sorting through the last haul, looking for live and legal-size oysters amid all the old shell and dead oysters and random debris. When the red bar on his depth finder jumps to 12 feet, Daniels quickly pops back up by the wheel and barks, "Get ready to let 'em go." His cullers scramble to their feet on both sides of the boat and begin muscling the clanking iron dredges overboard for yet another lick across another oyster bar.

A skipjack working under sail like this has been a rare sight these recent winters. During the last decade most dredge captains only went out on "push days." Two days a week the law allows them to drop a small motor yawl boat down behind the rudder and use power to push their big white sailboats back and forth across the oyster grounds. Driving a big boat under bare poles was a lot easier than sailing it, and it usually brought in more oysters at the end of the day. The rest of the week, on "sail days," the Bay was usually empty of skipjacks.

Back when Art Daniels started out, there were only sail days, and that's still the way he likes to go oystering. When he was 12, his father would take him out on Saturdays and tell him to take the wheel of the big dredge boat. "He would let me steer," says Daniels with a smile, and 70 years later the memory is still as sharp as yesterday. "And I got that thrill of the boat coming alive, you know, when you touch that wheel and feel that wind in the sail."

His mainsail was set. His father lent him a small skiff so he could go trotlining for crabs every summer in the waters around Deal Island. The oldest son among 11 children, he quit school at 17 in the middle of the Depression to help his family and for the next 10 years went winter dredging with his father. By the time he was 26, he was ready to run his own rig and got a neighbor to lend him a small sloop. He did so well on his own that he was hired next year as captain of the larger Molly Leonard. He did so well again he was able to buy the City of Crisfield when he was 28 years old. Then he sailed her through the second half of the 20th century.

What he saw over 50-plus years on the water was a series of small booms and large slumps in the oyster harvests of the Chesapeake. When Daniels first went out oystering on the City of Crisfield, there were dozens of skipjacks harbored around Deal Island and maybe a hundred working Maryland waters. Some of those boats could bring home 500 bushels on a great day. When the state imposed a daily cap of 150 bushels per boat, dredgers would often get their limit by lunch.

As harvests dropped, the number of boats in the sail fleet plummeted. A few skipjacks were sold as pleasure yachts, but most were simply abandoned by their captains to rot away in river guts and marshes and marinas. The few skipjacks still licensed to dredge almost all come from only two Eastern Shore communities: Tilghman Island and Deal Island. By 1999, the last season of the century, there were fewer than a dozen boats working, many in poor shape, and their captains seldom hoisted sail.

A growing number of skipjacks, however, have been rescued from rot. A few enterprising captains began rehabbing aging boats and offering off-season educational tours to school groups and the general public. Environmental organizations and maritime museums were soon using restored skipjacks as a key part of their educational outreach programs. By now tens of thousands of school children and parents and tourists have learned some of the lessons of Bay ecology aboard the decks of upgraded skipjacks. Once they were nearly gone, these dredge boats became a cause célèbre as a symbol of the Bay's rich biological and cultural heritage.

A skipjack may be a popular symbol, but it's a paradoxical one with some tough lessons to teach. With its jib and huge mainsail out on a reach, a skipjack like the City of Crisfield comes across an oyster bar like a freight train. When the crew throws the dredges overboard, these heavy iron claws drop onto the bar, shooting vibrations back up the line as they dig and scrape across the bottom with implacable force. Daniels says the drag of a dredge against oyster shell feels like metal grinding across glass and that tells him when he's on top of a bar. He's after an oyster called Crassostrea virginica, a reef-building species that has been piling up in the Bay for all its ten thousand years. According to some scientists, however, a century and a half of this kind of dredging has broken apart and scattered the Bay's ancient bars, destroying a system of massive, vertical oyster reefs that had played several key roles in the Bay's once-healthy ecology.

According to most watermen, the great oyster declines of Art Daniels' era were the result of two parasitic diseases, Dermo and MSX, which first struck the lower Bay in the late 1950s and became devastating epidemics in Maryland in the 1980s and 1990s. According to a number of scientists, however, overfishing was also a culprit, an underlying cause that would have cut harvests, though not as dramatically, even if these diseases had never struck. Watermen and scientists have been arguing about overfishing for a hundred and twenty-five years, and the debate may well outlive the last oyster and the last oysterman. "It's not overfishing," Daniels says, "because we don't have that many boats out there."

As the City of Crisfield plows east this day along the Choptank, Daniels is listening to his dredge lines. When the glass grinding reaches critical vibration, he begins waving his arm and yelling at his crew. "Let's see if we did any better this time." A culler kicks a gas-powered winder in gear, and with an ear-numbing noise, it slowly winches the loaded dredges up off the bottom. Leaning over the side, the cullers, two to a dredge, grab hold and lurch backwards, yanking each dredge on board with a loud clunk. Dropping to their knees yet again, they begin sorting and culling.

In one of their dredge hauls in November of '99, they found something odd, something they had never seen before. Lying on the deck among all the shells and dead oysters and debris was a dark piston, a tube about two feet long, with cryptic, technical labels.

It looked like a tool from another planet, except for the technical print and a hand-painted name that said: Ken Paynter. Who, the watermen wondered, was Ken Paynter? And why was one of his weird tools out here on one of their oyster bars?


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